Brito endured a seven-game losing streak this season, a skid that was unusual for a proud baseball program that is tied for seventh in Florida history with six state titles.
The downward trend soon became nine losses in 10 games and 11 losses out of 14 before things finally got turned around — and some of the credit goes to the youngest and smallest Brito starter.
That would be 5-5, 160-pound freshman Alex Nino — aptly named since nino is Spanish for boy.
Nino, the Panthers’ speedy center fielder, was moved from the ninth-hole hitter to leadoff man right after the team had lost its seventh in a row, and Brito’s offense has improved since.
“Alex is the fastest kid I’ve ever seen,” Brito pitcher Christian Crowe said of Nino, a native of Cuba who is hitting .350. “He will beat anything out.”
The Panthers (16-11), now on a modest four-game win streak, certainly hope that happens on Wednesday at 1 p.m., when they play Vero Beach’s Master’s Academy (18-10) in a Class 2A state semifinal at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers.
Brito will start senior right-hander Marco Bolano (3-3, 2.75 ERA) on Wednesday. If the Panthers advance to Thursday’s 4 p.m. final as expected, Crowe (7-2, 1.94 ERA) will get the ball.
The other semifinal will match Lecanto’s Seven Rivers Christian (13-11) against Tampa’s Bayshore Christian (15-4). But make no mistake — Brito is the class of 2A, at least if history is any indication.
None of the other three schools has ever won a state title. Bayshore and Seven Rivers had never even made it past a regional quarterfinal before this season. And Master’s lost in the state semifinals in its best season (2013).
That’s why Brito’s slump this season — although it came against some bigger schools and tough competition such as Westminster Christian, Gulliver and others — was so jarring.
Brito started its losing streak March 5 and did not post consecutive wins until April 4.
But Nino, who served as a pinch-runner as an eighth-grader last season, helped the Panthers snap out of their doldrums.
Nino showed what he could do against Boca Christian in Brito’s 6-1 regional final victory. In the first inning, he walked, stole second and went to third on a wild pitch before scoring easily on a single.
In the third, he singled off the pitcher’s glove and made it all the way to third on a sacrifice bunt. He then scored on a sacrifice fly. Nino showed his power in the sixth, blasting an RBI triple.
“I don’t want to lose my spot,” Nino said when asked what motivates him to produce.
That’s not happening anytime soon.
Before the switch, Brito’s coaches said their hitters were having poor at-bats, failing to generate offense. They also lacked enthusiasm, according to coach Pedro Guerra.
“We decided to try Alex at leadoff, but I was worried it was going to be too much pressure for a freshman,” Guerra said. “But he’s been the spark for our team.”
Region 4-8A final: Flanagan at Columbus, 7
Region 3-8A final: Lake Worth Park Vista at Douglas, 4
Region 4-7A final: St. Thomas Aquinas at Royal Palm Beach, 7
Region 4-4A final: Calvary Christian at Gulliver, 4
Region 4-3A final: Palm Beach Gardens Benjamin at Westminster Christian, 4